February 26, 2019
This life has not been easy. I’ve ran out of money and have experienced a loneliness that can bring you to your knees. And it was the music of Erykah Badu that filled up the empty space when nobody else could. Life is is an inherently tragic and lonely phenomenon, riddled with loss and reckoning that no matter how close we become with someone else, we’ll always have to return to ourselves and reflect on who it is we’ve become and the existential realities around being. Indeed, life is thrilling but it is also a thriller, and Erykah Badu’s music has often helped me transcend the horror that life can be. As I remember the economic and existential terror that was my youth and early adulthood, I remember Badu cooing in my ear, “My money’s gone. I’m all alone… The world keeps turning.” The subtle reminder that the cycle of life — despite my own obsession with the self — is still going on and on…and on.”
If Baduizm was a religion for a younger version of myself, then Mama’s Gun was a lifestyle. I did not just want to listen to the album: I wanted to live inside of, be one with, feel and smell like the album. From the American-southern-gothic/bohemian-Afrofuturist hybrid aesthetic, to the barely-there acoustic songs and funk anthems with spiritual undertones, Mama’s Gun solidified Badu as not just a musician in my life, but a type of mentor, who intuited that life could be lived without losing yourself to the spiritual and sociopolitical domination that this world produces. Erykah sings, “My life sure ain’t been too easy,” she warns me. “My life, you’re gonna go through changes.”
A lullaby dedicated to her son kept me warm during cold nights as if it was penned for me personally. “Time’s a wastin’, don’t waste your time, young man,” she reflects on the world we living in being so strange and fast, but reassured me with “If it’s all in the air, then it’s all on your mind.”
Lately, due to the nature of social media and how active and ever-present folks experiencing celebrity feel in all of our lives at all times, Erykah Badu has been in my air, and thus on my mind. She has experienced quite a few controversies — some silly and irreverent, some more disturbing in the past couple of years. When presented with the idea that underage schoolgirls should change their hemlines to not distract the male teachers Badu responded on Twitter saying, “I agree. We are sexual beings. We should consider everyone. Young girls are attractive. Some males are distracted.” The disturbing part of what she offered was the idea that somehow the patriarchal aggression and male sexualization — and their attraction or distraction to girls, actions produced by those truths — are somehow a shared responsibility. When adult men are distracted by girls, the more interesting conversation to me would be why are we constantly producing men that are naturally inclined to be attracted to and prey on young female bodies and minds.
Last year, Badu caused a firestorm by her remarks on Hitler in New York magazine. When speaking about the good she saw in everyone — despite the toxic actions they committed in life — she used Hitler as pedagogy. “Hitler was a wonderful painter,” she said, attempting to use one of the most toxic examples of what the white supremacist patriarchy can produce, and socialize one into, if not intervened with the work I call Black feminism, as an example of how everyone has the potential to leave both positive and negative marks on the world. Despite the argument not being totally bankrupt, the irreverence she brought to the subject matter, along with the lack of context, made the comments seem in bad taste at best and anti-semitic at worst to the public.
Earlier this year she responded to the R. Kelly allegations that came into the public discourse after dream hampton’s Lifetime documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, saying, “I dunno how everybody else feel about it, but I’m putting up a prayer right now for R. I hope he sees the light of day if he done all those things that we’ve seen on TV, and heard those ladies talk about. I hope he sees the light of day and comes forward.” The crowd began to boo and she responded, “What y’all say, fuck him? That’s not love. That’s not unconditional love. But what if one of the people that was assaulted by R Kelly grows up to be an offender, we gonna crucify them?”
I understand Erykah Badu now in the same way that I understood her on a deep level when I first started worshipping at the temple of Baduizm. I’m from the South. I’m a pisces, and I too love raising hell. My understanding and empathy for her, however, can’t override my disappointment and my knowingness of how the power of a platform like celebrity can work. Who you show light and love to publicly shapes the experiences of those who are affected, namely victims. So although it might be a part of your spiritual or intellectual practice to show nuance and a justice that sees the full humanity of everything, when speaking through the megaphone of celebrity those folks you seek to extend nuance to become predators you coddle. Those you are sending love and light to — those who you are centering — become platformed and empowered, instead of the people they victimized. When we look to contextualize horrendous dictators and political leaders with the societal realities that create evil and oppressive actions without context and acknowledgment of the pain it caused, we collude with the culture that looks to flatten and make a monolith of terrorized people and cult figures out of those who terrorize.
When engaging Badu’s moments that have caused me pause or angered me, I’ve had to ironically practice Baduizm. I’ve been calling on the deep reflection and analysis of those I love in my world, that she implored me to have in “Appletree” and the call for trust in life’s cycle that she turned into a melodic mediation on “On & On.” And most relevantly, I’ve remembered “Drama”: This world does not call for you to process and reflect, but to react and make actions. I can’t do that with Erykah Badu, I must give her the same patience she gave me when I was at my loneliest and most lost; but I must be just as relentless about what I believe and stay relentless to what I know is right, not people that I’d hope are right.
However, I can’t disappear or “cancel” Erykah Badu publicly, just like I can’t justify her speech publicly or privately. I can’t pull the trigger on a Black artist if there’s room for dialogue, if there’s room for transformation, and if for some reason there’s room to think, “if the artist could just understand the same perspectives that took me years of unlearning and continuous self-reflection and discipline to understand, they’d change.” Not edit, but evolve. I can’t pull the trigger on another Black artist because I’m too exhausted, and besides, it’s not my gun of judgment to shoot. And when we really look at how we’re all responsible for the life we lead and things we say, it’s not even a deity’s or the public’s gun to shoot. That’s mama’s gun.
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